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Hungary: Conservatives, Opposition Close Ahead Of Parliamentary Vote

Hungarians vote on Sunday, 7 April in the first round of parliamentary elections. Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right FIDESZ party is running neck-and-neck with the opposition Socialists, in a two-round race to decide who will lead Hungary into the European Union in 2004. But the elections are clouded by fears that a far-right party might join the government amid signs of an increasing nationalist presence in Hungarian politics.

Prague, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungarians go to the polls this week to elect the country's fourth parliament since the collapse of communism, amid what is perceived as a resurgence of nationalism in Hungary's politics.

About 8 million voters will decide among 39 parties and 1,245 candidates vying for the 386-seat national assembly in a two-round election, whose second leg is scheduled for 21 April.

Some recent opinion polls suggest that an alliance led by Prime Minister Orban's conservative center-right Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) has a lead of more than 10 percentage points over its main rival -- the center-left Socialist Party (MSZP).

But commentators agree that the difference is not a clear indication of who will win the election because of Hungary's complicated voting system.

FIDESZ has led the country's three-party governing coalition -- together with the Independent Smallholders' Party (FKGP) and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) -- since 1998.

FIDESZ was founded in 1988 as a radical-liberal student movement. But after a poor showing in 1994 elections, it turned to Christian-Conservative policies, defeating the Socialists in the 1998 poll.

FIDESZ leader Viktor Orban, then 38, became Hungary's youngest prime minister in the modern era. Under his government, Hungary has enjoyed steady economic growth -- 3.8 percent in 2001 -- and became a NATO member in 1999.

Orban is now aiming at becoming the first prime minister to win a second mandate in postcommunist central Europe. He is pledging to keep Hungary on the track of Western integration, but with a stronger stress on protecting national interests.

A trained lawyer, Orban is also a media-savvy orator. He brushed aside criticism yesterday that his party is arrogant, after his campaign organizer Lazslo Koever triggered protests by urging dissatisfied voters "to hang themselves."

Orban said: "Let us show that we can inform in a different way, communicate our results in a different way, that we can behave and think in a different way, that we can build another direction, the direction of civic behavior in Hungary. We do not have to be tough in order to be strong."

The government, after years of austerity, has recently launched a recovery program, increasing the minimum wage and pensions and giving long-term subsidized loans to buy homes.

But the FIDESZ-led alliance -- which also includes the center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Christian-democrat MKDSZ movement, and the Hungarian Roma's largest civic movement -- is facing strong competition from the center-left MSZP.

MSZP has formed an electoral alliance with MSOS, Hungary's largest union federation.

The direct heir of the pre-1989 Communist Party, MSZP governed the country between 1994 and 1998 and attracted Western praise for its market-oriented reforms, which managed to put order in the country's finances, quell inflation, and re-launch economic growth and privatization.

Analysts say it was the socialists who achieved the economic fundamentals the current government has built upon. However, MSZP was voted out of power in 1998 amid growing popular discontent with hardships brought by reforms.

MSZP is now vowing to reduce the gap between rich and poor, restore the power of parliament, ensure the independence of judges, and safeguard press freedoms -- key issues on which FIDESZ is accused of shortfalls.

The socialists' candidate for prime minister is Peter Medgyessy, a former finance minister and a successful banker with strong economic credentials. Medgyessy lacks charisma and oratory skills, and has attracted media criticism that he is apparently avoiding a direct TV debate with Orban.

Medgyessy, however, said yesterday he will face Orban on 5 April in the last day of the election campaign. He said he considers it a matter of "honor."

"It is personal pledges that make a man give his word, put his honor on the line, and make him willing to present those pledges to his voters," Medgyessy says.

Under Hungary's election system, a party or candidate needs at least 5 percent of the vote to enter parliament. Each voter casts two votes in the first round, one for an individual candidate and one for a party list.

Provided voter turnout is over 50 percent -- and if candidates obtain a simple majority of more than 50 percent, a combined total of 328 mandates could theoretically be won in the first round.

In the second round, the candidate with most votes wins regardless of whether a simple majority is acquired -- and provided voter turnout is more than 25 percent.

The remaining 58 mandates are awarded to national party lists.

Analysts say that after the second round, the winner will probably seek the support of smaller parties to gain the majority needed to form the government.

The liberal Free Democrats Alliance (SZDSZ) is a traditional ally of the Socialists. But some analysts say FIDESZ could seek its support. Another party likely to go over the 5 percent threshold is the newly formed moderate Centrum Party (CP) of former Finance Minister Mihaly Kupa.

But it is the probable re-accession to parliament of far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) that is causing real concern.

In 1998, MIEP -- an ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-EU, and anti-NATO party led by maverick playwright Istvan Csurka -- was the first far-right party to get into the Hungarian parliament since World War II.

Polls say MIEP could gather up to 6 percent of the vote in the upcoming election.

Its deputies have tacitly supported the FIDESZ-led coalition, and many fear that Orban could seek a coalition with MIEP in a future government.

FIDESZ officially denied that it will seek an alliance with MIEP. But Csurka has already declared that he will instruct his voters to support FIDESZ in the second round.

Orban has lately shown increasing nationalist tendencies, notably by pushing ahead with the so-called Status Law -- a law granting economic and social benefits to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries.

Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after World War I, and some 3.5 million Hungarians now live in neighboring countries.

Orban in 2001 succeeded in passing the Status Law, which came into force on 1 January.

But the measure has caused tensions in relations with neighboring Romania and Slovakia, where Europe's largest -- 1.7 million -- and second-largest -- 600,000 -- ethnic Hungarian minorities live. At the same time, it prompted critics to accuse Orban of exploiting the nationalist sentiment to win votes.

British journalist Kester Eddy, a Budapest-based correspondent for London's "Financial Times," tells RFE/RL the measure may indeed be part of Orban's attempt to gain nationalist voters' favors.

However, despite impressive economic growth, the average monthly salary in Hungary is only $250, and Eddy says the Status Law could backfire if voters feel they are paying for it.

"I see it as part of the package that FIDESZ is offering, and [it will be popular] with those Hungarians that feel wrong and feel hurt by the [1920] Trianon Treaty and the loss of large sways of what was Hungarian-ruled territory before. Yes, it's part of the ploy to win that kind of voter. But that is 'yes' until they actually start losing jobs or they feel that Hungary is paying too much for the ethnic Hungarians abroad," Eddy says.

Eddy goes further to say the status law not only strained Budapest's relations with neighbors, but also caused concern among EU countries.

"Certainly, this status law is one thing that the EU embassies I talked to have been watching very carefully and have been wringing their hands in frustration [about] -- I think -- at times," Eddy says.

Eddy says that other countries in the region such as Slovakia or Croatia scrapped nationalist leaderships after realizing they had done no good and obstructed economic advance. But he points out that Hungary -- which had moderate, reformist governments throughout the 1990s -- now seems to be turning to a stronger nationalist feeling.